Baltimoreans, native and not, join together for World Refugee Day Festival

These are unsettling times for some refugees and immigrants in this country, and there were reminders of that at Highlandtown’s Creative Alliance Saturday.

There were T-shirts emblazoned with the message “Love Over Fear.”

There was an art project of photos in which the subjects had answered such questions as “Why did you leave home?” (“Our home was bombed,” answered a woman named Senzela).

And there were hand-lettered signs with messages such as “Deportation is unacceptable” and “Refugees are not a threat or animals.”

But the World Refugee Day Festival was not meant so much as a political demonstration or a rally, or even a chance to spread information about assistance — although such help was available.

“It’s more of a celebration,” said Maria Gabriela Aldana, the alliance’s education director and organizer of the festival, which is in its 10th year. The local event honors World Refugee Day, which was June 20.

“The idea is to have a family experience that’s really from around the world, but rooted right here in Baltimore,” Aldana said.

To that end, the 400-plus people who attended — up almost double from last year, Aldana said, despite overcast skies that moved everything inside — got to sample a plethora of cultures.

There was food from Ethiopia, a dancer from Burundi, music from Nepal and Zimbabwe. There were African clothes, Afghan art and children’s activities that included kite-making and face-painting.

“Part of what we love about Baltimore, and part of what makes us so happy to raise our daughter here, is how multi-cultural and diverse it is,” said Dina Fiasconaro, a second generation Italian-American who had come from Medfield with her husband, Gary Cuddington, and their 4-year-old daughter, Sailor. “We’re always looking for opportunities to expose her to the arts and the diversity of culture.”

Stationed near the building’s entrance, Aishah AlFadhalah was doing brisk business selling Eritrean food, including injera (a vegetarian plate) and hembasha (bread).

“It’s been great,” said AlFadhalah, a native of Kuwait and one of the founders of Mera Kitchen Collective, a multi-cultural food cooperative that hosts events throughout the city. “I love the diversity of the vendors, the people.”

On the second floor, where the kids’ activities were centered, Garry Bienaime, president of Komite Ayiti, a group for Haitians in Baltimore, said this is an unsettling time for refugee families.

“My family members, this community, is very apprehensive of what is going on,” he said. “It’s a very cautious era to be in the U.S., as a refugee, as an immigrant, as an asylum seeker. You don’t know which way things are going.”

Nevertheless, Bienaime, who was born in Haiti and came to this country in 1984 when his father sought asylum, said, “Today’s a day to celebrate. It’s a great day.”

The festival closed with an hour of music and dance. Performers included the Zimbabwean Afro fusion band Mokoomba, who had stayed over for the festival after performing at the alliance Friday night, and Prem Raja Mahat, a Nepalese pop music superstar who has been living in the U.S. for 20 years. He owns the Nepal House restaurant in Mount Vernon, and is the Nepalese Honorary Consul for Maryland.

“This kind of love, from this kind of place, it makes people really happy, from the bottom of the heart,” Mahat said.

“When we’re here, when we celebrate this kind of music and dance, we feel we are in the right place, in a good place,” he said. “That is why this is very important.”

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